Chicago Gets A New Cultural Czar: Columbia College’s Mark Kelly

Mark Kelly
Kaitlin Hetterscheidt / Columbia Chronicle
Mark Kelly
Kaitlin Hetterscheidt / Columbia Chronicle

Chicago Gets A New Cultural Czar: Columbia College’s Mark Kelly

After 32 years of exuberantly and indefatigably boosting Columbia College Chicago—many called him “Mr. Columbia”—Mark Kelly is leaving the college to replace Michelle Boone as commissioner of the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, responsible for, as a statement from Columbia President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim put it, “the presentation and promotion of high-quality free festivals, exhibitions, performances and holiday celebrations each year in parks, the historic Chicago Cultural Center and other venues throughout the city.”

The job is an enormously challenging one, even for someone as energetic as Kelly. Throughout the Daley administration, DCASE (which was then two separate departments) was widely viewed as a dumping ground for political patronage, with the notable exception of legendary Cultural Affairs chief Lois Weisberg and a handful of her staffers—all of whom were unceremoniously dumped shortly before Daley left office.

Things haven’t been any better under Mayor Emanuel, Despite shifting to paid concerts. Taste of Chicago and the other big music festivals continue to lose money. The Cultural Center has cut way back on programming and is now a shadow of its former self. The much-hyped Chicago Cultural Plan (which counted Kelly among its advisory committee members) turned out to be an expensively out-sourced and pretty much useless epic of self-congratulation. And though it was launched with fanfare in 2013, the Mayor’s Music Office has done little or nothing for the city’s widespread and always challenged independent music scene.

Because of observations such as these, Boone and DCASE have not been fans of this blog. (According to The Chicago Sun-Times, the current commissioner may be heading to Navy Pier; Kelly leaves Columbia on Aug. 5.) In the interest of disclosure, I should note that along with Deborah Holdstein, former dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, and English Department Chair Ken Daley, Kelly was one of the key people who seven years ago brought me to Columbia, where I am now a senior lecturer. But as a lifelong Chicagoan steeped in the rough-and-tumble of the city’s public and political lives, Kelly surely knows I’ll be as tough on him as I’ve been on everyone at DCASE.

Among the first questions I’d like to pose: Will the traditions of patronage and lip service to the arts with no real results continue? In these times of financial crises, does the city really need to be in the festival business at all? Will municipal events to foster culture finally spread beyond the lakefront and into the neighborhoods? And will any of the vague plans alluded to in Emanuel’s Cultural Plan turn into solid realities—say, for example, real action on creating that long-discussed Uptown Music District, or some examination of a permanent festival site to move for-profit music festivals out of city parks?

Congratulations, Mark. Good luck! And I can’t wait for our first interview.

Here is the text of Columbia’s President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim’s statement about Kelly’s new job.

Good morning,

I am writing to inform you that after 32 years of dedicated service to Columbia College Chicago, our colleague Mark Kelly has accepted the position of Commissioner of the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). As Commissioner, Mark will be responsible for the presentation and promotion of high-quality free festivals, exhibitions, performances and holiday celebrations each year in parks, the historic Chicago Cultural Center and other venues throughout the city. Mark’s last day at Columbia will be August 5.

During his long and storied career at Columbia, Mark has played a key role in advancing Columbia’s growth and influence as a nationally-renowned institution whose graduates have become leaders in their industries and fields of creative practice. He has been a force in his devotion and passion for students, and under his leadership, our students have flourished in showcasing and celebrating their work in Chicago.

His accomplishments are numerous, stemming from his persistent commitment to student success and to pushing creative work into public space through street art, installations, performances, processions and more. He has helped shape the Columbia experience and Columbia’s presence and contributions to the urban landscape of Chicago by establishing some of our foundational traditions: Manifest, New Student Convocation and his “Hell Yeah” Liturgy, and Commencement. He is also the founder and chair of Columbia’s Wabash Arts Corridor (WAC) initiative, a partnership with other higher education institutions, cultural organizations and local business to create a “living urban canvas” and urban lab for creative expression, innovation and excellence in the arts. Most recently, the WAC’s newest project, Big Walls, debuted to resounding success across Chicago and continues to receive admiration and praise nationally and internationally.

Mark will be greatly missed, but I know that you will join me in wishing him much success in his new role. To be at Columbia is to be part of a creative and academic community that is inextricably linked to the city of Chicago. With Mark at the helm of DCASE, I can only imagine the new possibilities for our college to become even more enmeshed in the fabric of our city. So in a real sense, we’re not really saying goodbye to Mark – we are entering into a new and exciting partnership with him.

Further information about a reception in Mark’s honor will be coming soon. In the meantime, please join me in congratulating him on this wonderful next step in his career.

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